There's an underappreciated art to making fun but ridiculous action films that literally blow reality to smithereens. Director Roland Emmerich has proved himself to be a specialist at it, with lug-headed yet appealing crowd-pleasers such as "The Day After Tomorrow," "Independence Day" and "2012."
Those guilty pleasures were excessive in every way, from their frenetic Wile E. Coyote action sequences down to their impressive A-list casts. And they worked. But while Emmerich's "White House Down" mostly sticks to the same formula, this latest cinematic assault on the Oval Office fails to deliver on the campaign promise that it will be as fun as the original "Die Hard."
It also pales in comparison to "Olympus Has Fallen," a far more violent and intense takedown of the White House from earlier this year that starred Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman. To be fair, "Olympus" is very different in tone from "Down," which wants to be more of an homage to buddy action films of yore. In that arena, it serves the public well enough, especially when it's playing it for laughs. But "Down" tries way too hard, stuffing in so many crackpot twists that attempts at genuine tension all but vanish.
The half-hour setup bodes well, as screenwriter James Vanderbilt ("The Amazing Spider-Man") introduces us to the major players: the idealistic President James Swayer (Jamie Foxx); the cuckoo outgoing Secret Service commander Martin Walker (James Woods); the tough Special Agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal); and the superbaddie in need of a good teeth cleaning Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke).
The best character is John Cale (Channing Tatum), a harried dad and ex-military man stuck serving the grumbling Speaker of the House (Richard Jenkins).
Cale, played with immense likability by Tatum, gets a shot at redemption when he and the president get trapped in the White House and play dodgeball with the hooligans who take it over. The Oval Office goes down just after Sawyer announces he's withdrawing all troops from the Middle East.
Coincidence? What do you think?
Cale is in the White House while on a tour with his precocious daughter (Joey King) when all the mayhem begins. He brought her with him for a Secret Services job interview with Finnerty, a former classmate. Naturally, father and daughter are separated, and Vanderbilt pushes the father theme throughout "White House Down," showing us the extremes that dads will go to for their children.
But any aspirations to come up with a message are drowned out by car cashes, a plane crash, bombs and gunfire -- you name it.
The best parts of "White House Down" come when Tatum and Foxx are foiling the tattooed thugs. Their banter elevates the film, even as it gets progressively strangled by an avalanche of cliches and absurd plot high jinks.
Still, there are clever flourishes here and there: The fictional president, in a wink to Barack Obama, has his nightstand filled with Nicorette gum, and a zealous tour guide provides needed comic relief. There are just not enough of those moments. The cast, although slumming it, is good. Foxx makes a fine president, Woods is a complicated villain and Gyllenhaal plays a smart, strong female character. But Tatum owns the film. He is funny and endearing. And sorry to say, Bruce Willis: He looks better in a white sleeveless undershirt than you did in "Die Hard."
Yet none of that star power can save "White House" from ultimately going down. A more refined screenplay and less octane in the director's gas tank might have done the trick. As is, it makes a yipee-ki-yay thud.
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke, James Woods, Joey King
Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of action violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image)
Director: Roland Emmerich
Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes